It's pretty much summertime already. The calendar has landed. Go to there.
My sister graduated from Skidmore College last weekend, and Nina and I went up to Saratoga Springs to witness. We'd reserved rooms in a cute little bed-and-breakfast called The Brunswick Inn, and we took the Amtrak up the Ethan Allen line there on Friday. Mark it: I am a bad brother, and though I'd sent her several care packages during her time in school I'd never once come up to visit her. If you can choose your next brother, choose a good one, like Billy's Bobby or Ted's Dan. And I really should have made the trip, because among other things Saratoga Springs is a pretty little town, one that you could really rule as an undergraduate with some gumption. There's a modest downtown area with coffee shops and stores that sell ladies' pants suits, and there are lots of quiet, tree-lined streets with big, clean-looking houses. Obviously they do horse-racing, too, but we didn't see any racetracks, just an ominous coterie of empty horse trailers being pulled up and down the streets. We arrived pretty late, around 10:30 or so, and it took some doing to raise our inn-keeper -- phone calls and bell-dinging in the dark and quiet downstairs sitting room. It reminded me a little of the hotel in In The Mouth Of Madness, really. But he was very accomodating when he arrived and showed us to an elegantly-furnished room with a big comfy bed and holy shit a motherfucking jacuzzi.
We dropped off the bags and hurried off to a party at a place called The Irish Times. It wasn't a particularly Irish joint but it was crammed with graduating seniors and my sister's friend's jazz band was performing on the second floor. My parents were there, too, looking a little shell-shocked. We joined them and let my sister introduce us to about a million of her friends. We stayed until about 1 AM, although it looked like the party was gonna go way later.
My parents picked us up in the minivan they'd rented for the weekend and ferried us to SPAC, where the graduation ceremonies were going to be held. The amphitheater The first speaker was the jazz trumpeter Terence Blanchard. He's not a Skidmore alumnus himself, but he led a kind of class-wide seminar my sister's freshman year on jazz music and the rebulding of New Orleans after Katrina, and so, as he pointed out, this was kind of a matriculation for him as well. He had good and difficult advice to impart: Stay true to yourself; always do the right thing. Ron Chernow was next -- he's written a bunch of famous biographies (Alexander Hamilton, J.P. Morgan) but his speech was kind of a snooze, filled with Unconventional Wisdom to the effect that the plans you make upon graduation are probably going to see a fair amount of, you know, flux. Not that that stuff isn't true, mind you. And it was still a head and shoulders better than the awful speech my class got from The Mustache of Understanding. There were several other speakers: A Spanish teacher who gave a suspiciously clever speech about the value of doing nothing; a Skidmore alumna who made a laryngitic plea for donations.
And then it was time for the graduates to collect their diplomas (or the folders for their diplomas, depending). So many kids! So many blonde ladies. My sister was among them, of course, and we hollered as loud as we were able when she crossed the stage. After it was all over, we had lunch with the families of some of my sister's friends, in a sunny clearing next to a quiet brook where some people were fishing; and then we drove to my sister's off-campus house, a big beautiful four-bedroom deal with a front porch and a back yard for barbecues. She showed off some her favorite textbooks and the remains of a presentation she'd given on the distribution of prime numbers as we helped get her clothes into big Chinatown shopping bags. Some of her friends watched a horse race on the house television and cheered. It made me wish I'd lived in a big friend house when I was in college, although to be fair that's sort of what I get to do now. For dinner we went to Hattie's Chicken Shack, apparently a bit of a fixture in Saratoga Springs, and ordered fried chicken sandwiches that turned out to be way bigger than we could handle. We chomped as hard as we could; I finished mine, my dad ate everything but the bun, and Nina made it about three quarters of the way through before throwing in the towel. And it made us sleepy, so sleepy we could barely think straight.
Exhausted from our exertions, we returned to the Brunswick. We'd promised to rally and go wild out with my sister, but we found ourselves more or less immobilized. As an alternative entertainment, I hit up the inn's vaunted "VHS library," a row of, say, two dozen tapes next to the sink in the second-floor kitchen. As these things often are, I think, it was a strange mix of family-inappropriate ("Platoon") and wildly dull ("Video Golf Tutor"). I grabbed a promising-looking tape with the humble title "Sports Bloopers" and ferried it back to our room, where I popped it into the slot on the small, arm-mounted TV set above the armoire. I was half worried it would be a snuff film or a terrorist video manifesto, but it was exactly as advertised: Grainy broadcast footage of athletes having accidents while playing various sports (football, boxing, rodeo) while a smug narrator cracked dusty jokes about their misfortune. The whole video was only about 40 minutes long, but they had so little footage that they started repeating clips at around the half hour mark. Eat your heart out, Everything Is Terrible! My next selection was going to be a highlight reel of Jay Leno at the 1990-something Montreal Comedy Festival, but Nina begged off. ("No. No. Fuck that guy.") People, I am not a monster.
The next morning we hung out in the jacuzzi until check-out time, and then tried to occupy ourselves in downtown Saratoga, my parents having loaded up the caravan and split. We did so largely by lolling about in Congress Park, watching pairs of ducks root around in the banks of the stream that bisects the green. The cab driver who took us back to the train station said racist things. We played GalaxIR against each other on our phone while we waited for the train. On the train we got drunk off Dogfish Head 90 Minute IPA and I wrote programs on my computer.
Upon returning to Brooklyn, we responded to a message from Katharine and Young Thomas asking us to join them at Katharine's family's cabin on Cape Cod for Memorial Day. Of course we said yes -- that shack is kind of a paradise, implausibly comfortable given how small and out-of-the-way it is. That Friday we took the Metro-North train to New Haven with Katharine and then picked up Tom and a rental car for the second leg of the journey. We listened to local radio stations as we passed in and out of their broadcast radius and tried to figure out what the 2012 "summer jam" is going to be: Call Me Maybe? Glad You Came? My money is still on The Motto. I love road trips! Not least of all because you get to eat the worst kind of garbage for dinner. Hailing from across the sea as he does, Tom's got some gaps in his knowledge of North American fast food. He's been working to, uh, fill them in, but when we saw the turn-off on I-95 for an Applebee's in Coventry, Rhode Island, we knew we had to stop in. There was a girls' high school soccer team forming a sort of gauntlet outside as they waited to be seated. "Go seniors!" they hollered at us. We ordered an appetizer sampler -- all sorts of gross fried / gooey stuff -- which was basically enough food for our entire meal. We also got entrees. It was so good. When the waitress asked if I wanted another 20-oz Bud Light, I stammered, "But that'd be forty ounces!"
"Wow," she said. "Are you a mathematician?"
The next morning, we got breakfast at Dunkin' & Donut and ate on a rocky spit down by harbor, watching people digging for clams in the mud. Then we struck out for Provincetown, where we walked up and down the main drag, saying hi to friendly dogs. We stopped at Cabot's for bags of salt-water taffy. I was tempted to take a cheeky picture of their painted glass front window, which advertised the availability of "mouthwatering fudge" -- and which naturally put me in mind of Jon Wurster. We spent the afternoon on one of the Atlantic coast beaches. Nina and I took a walk and collected an assortment of pretty stones. The water was freezing but I agreed to wade out to chest level with Tom before we left. When we got out to the negotiated depth, he submerged himself complete. "Fuck," I thought, and did the same. Babies, it was cold. I wondered for a scant second in the darkness below the water whether my heart would stop. It didn't. On the way back to the cabin we stopped at what I think was Turtle Pond for a quick swim. With Nina on my back I invented an entirely original swim activity called "Water Taxi." It has an accompanying sound effect: B-b-b-b-b-b-b-b. We chased small fish around in the water near the shore. In the evening we cooked hamburgers and I read aloud from Robin Cook's Invasion, part of the cabin's tiny library and surely one of the dumbest books ever.
The next day we made eggs and drove out to a beach on, I think, Cape Cod Bay, which was rockier but where the water was warmer than the ocean. Nina and I waded in the shallow water, scooping up and releasing tiny hermit crabs. "Look at him go!" she said.
Later we went out to Cahoon Hollow beach, the one with the crazily steep descent down a dune to the water. Upon arriving we saw on the horizon a crowd gathered at the other end of the beach and realized it must be the first few days of The Beachcomber's season. O Beachcomber! Haven to massholes and wharf drunks. On every visit to Wellfleet we've tried to hit it up, but fate has ever thwarted us. This time, though, its doors were open to us. It's an okay joint, for a shithole. Lots of nautical tchotchkies and head shots of famous people all the walls. And it was packed that day, with a crowd ranging from Polo-shirted mom-and-dad types to leathery beach weirdos. Notably, there was a really big guy inexplicably clad in a tan suit and matching fedora that Katharine nicknamed The Mayor. (He did seem to know everyone.) Since there was a band playing there was a flat ten-dollar cover, the bouncer -- who had an arrogant disposition despite missing his two front teeth -- informed us. The band turned out to be a local act, a reunited group called The Incredible Casuals. I was a little skeezed out by the name (it fails Steve Merchant's "Welcome to the stage..." test) and by the baseball caps and ponytails I saw on some of their members, but they ultimately won me over: A beardy, barefoot dude who looked a fuck of a lot like Charles Manson and who'd been creeping around in the audience before the set hopped up on stage as their lead singer, a la my favorite Shane MacGowan anecdote ("They're not letting him in here, are they?"); the drummer, who goes by "Rikki Bates," played with a gawky traditional grip. And their songs were solid, peppy bar rock songs. We watched them for two or three beers and then began the long trek back to the car.
In the evening we drove into the Wellfleet town center, passing by a familiar array of used book stores and nautical curio shops. Our destination was Winslow's Tavern, where we had white wine and oysters on the second floor. I ate my first (?) oyster, which I'd been putting off for no real reason. It was alright -- there's a slight metallic edge that makes the critter's natural fishiness taste "clean" -- but I confess I'm not totally clear on what all the fuss is about. Are they supposed to make your dick hard? I don't know if I was paying enough attention. After that we went to PJ's for fried clams. (Shamefully, this was one of the parts of the trip I was most looking forward to, like fucking Wimpy with his hamburgers.) We bought a Duraflame log at the convenience store next to PJ's and used it to start a fire in the cottage's neat little fireplace, then roasted marshmallows to make s'mores.
Driving back to New Haven on Monday morning, we looked to recreate our chain restaurant success from Friday night, and so when we caught sight of a Friendly's after passing the rotary that is the gateway to the Cape, we stopped for breakfast. I don't know if I'd ever been to a Friendly's before. I certainly hadn't eaten there in many years. The Friendly's we went to -- and by the franchise predicate calculus, all Friendly's restaurants -- was a bit threadbare and more industrial than Applebee's. While we waited for the hostess to seat us, I read the employee code of conduct, which bore several dozen signatures and was scotch-taped to the side of an out-of-order soda machine. Among other things, it required that Friendly's servers "emphasize the importance of ice cream as a FUN FOOD that makes the meal" (capitalization theirs). We'd missed breakfast (do they serve it?) so we ordered a bunch of high-calorie fried things for lunch, and sure enough the waitress pressed us to get ice cream -- as she pointed out, Tom's burger-and-soft drink order would perversely be two dollars cheaper if he added an ice cream sundae to it. He acquiesced, but she let the rest of us off the hook when we squirmed visibly. When it came time to order it, we decided to go all in, like that Uruk-hai who shoves Aragorn's sword in deeper, which is how we wound up with a cotton candy-and-pop rocks-flavored sundae with gummy bears and Maraschino cherries on top. And here's the crazy part: It was actually pretty good. Go Friendly's!
There was some quiet time in the car. I thought about the trips to the Cape my family had taken me on. Horseflies on the beach, minnows caught in tide pools. What children owe their parents.